The Big Interview: Anthony Clavane

Anthony Clavane, and a scene from Promised Land, below.
Anthony Clavane, and a scene from Promised Land, below.
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Anthony Clavane has one of those jobs some consider the best in the world.He travels the globe watching major sports events and hangs out with the sporting heroes the rest of us worship.

As chief sports writer for the Sunday Mirror, he covered the world cup in Tokyo, the Olympics in Beijing, had a front row seat to Mo Farah’s victories at London 2012 – and, what’s more, the newspaper which keeps him in gainful employment only comes out once a week. It’s got to be the cushiest of cushy numbers.

As ever, there is some gap between perception and reality.

The truth is, Clavane loves his job, but he writes a little more than a solitary article once a week and has a little more to say than the pages of a weekly tabloid really allow. How much more?

Next week sees the launch of his latest book, his second – and Clavane hopes there is a lot more to come.

Today the writer is on one of his regular visits to Leeds and in a single day does a number of things that reflect the variety he experiences now that he is a successful author, journalist, playwright and songwriter (we’ll come to those last two).

After meeting with the new artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse to discuss projects, he spent the morning writing a couple of articles for his newspaper and, following our interview about his new book, is heading to Elland Road.

He will be at the match as a fan, but he is attending with his literary agent and while there will also fit in an interview with Leeds manager Neil Warnock. He’s also found time to write a piece for the Jewish Telegraph about Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? – his second book exploring Jewishness and football.

Both it and his successful début Promised Land, could be loosely termed “social history”, but they are also about much more besides.

Promised Land, published in 2010 is about so much more, in fact, that the publishers were confused when it came to deciding on a cover for Clavane’s début.

Initially, the jacket featured two contrasting scenes from games at Elland Road – one jubilant, one despondent. The book even had a subtitle: The Reinvention of Leeds United. It was, in short and no mistake, the publishers made clear, a football book. Except it wasn’t.

Sure, the club featured in the book – and heavily, but the football team Clavane has supported all his life was a Trojan Horse inside which he sneaked far more wide- ranging issues.

When the reviews started arriving, praising a book that explored the Jewish diaspora, the fortunes of a northern city, the concept of success and what we sacrifice to achieve it, the publishers had a re-think.

The book was re-issued with a cover that reflected a dark, almost romanticised vision of the north. A man in flat cap walking down a street, football scarf hanging limply from his wrist was now the cover image and a new subtitle was added: A Northern Love Story.

“I felt that reflected the book more accurately,” says Clavane. “The book was about football and about Leeds United, but the narrative of my football team felt like the narrative of my city and the narrative of my Jewish culture. When Leeds dropped from the top of the league to the third division I felt this almost existential angst,”

Clavane laughs at this, able to have a sense of humour about the ridiculous depths of the love some men feel for a football team. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t mean it.

“It wasn’t just about the football, it represented so much more to me, that‘s why I say I felt such angst.

“The narrative of my Jewish culture is that we get a glimpse of the Promised Land but we never get there. Moses led his people to the cusp of a transformation, but never made it to the Promised Land himself. So it was for my Jewish culture, so it felt for my city and my football team. It felt like, when we went down to the third division, the golden age of ambition and social mobility was over.

“That was why I had to write a book about football, the city of Leeds and the story of the British Jewish immigrant community.”

The book won Sports Book of the Year, Football Book of the Year, was a Radio Two book of the year, received high praise from football fans and non-fans alike. Leeds theatre company Red Ladder saw much in it that appealed to their political sensibilities and decided to turn it into an unlikely play, which was brought to life in Leeds earlier this year.

“When the play happened it was, without exaggeration, one of the most exciting times of my life,” says Clavane. “To hear people saying your words, or singing your songs on stage is amazing.”

When it became a stage play, the central relationship at the heart of Promised Land was between Nathan and Caitlin and the central question was whether or not Nathan would leave his Leeds, his Jewish roots and head to London. For Nathan read Clavane – except Nathan stayed, Clavane left.

The eldest son of a secretary at a Leeds Synagogue and a mother who sold advertising for the Jewish Telegraph, Clavane had what he describes as a ‘typical Jewish upbringing’.

“Full of love, perhaps even a little too much. My mum was a typical Jewish mother – as her eldest child and a boy I was a genius, everything I did was amazing – ‘look my son’s so clever, when he walks he puts one foot in front of the other’,” says Clavane.

He left for Sussex University to study history, and on graduating became a teacher, a career he pursued because of a strong sense of social justice and, politically a strong socialist bent. However, after six years he realised the classroom wasn’t for him. In his late 20s he retrained as a journalist and worked for a regional paper in Suffolk. A decade later, he made the jump to the Daily Mirror and has been the newspaper’s chief sports writer ever since.

Growing up, however, young Clavane already showed literary leanings – his first piece of published work was an award winning short story in the Yorkshire Evening Post, for which he received a cheque for the sum of two pounds – a cheque he still has.

“I had things that I wanted to say about the city and all of this,” says Clavane. “Which is why I wrote Promised Land. On the face of it I’m a sports writer and I brought out a book about football, but when people read it they were surprised to see me writing about kitchen sink social realists (as well as reeling off the names of his favourite Leeds United team of the 1970s in double quick time, Clavane always adds he has a first 11 of Northern socialist writers from Keith Waterhouse to Stan Barstow).

“David Peace read the book and got in touch to tell me he’d read it in two sittings, which was amazing. To have a writer I respect and admire so much tell me that was wonderful.”

It appears that Clavane has pulled off the same trick twice with his latest book.

Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? is about Jewish footballers. Except, once again it does more than it says on the tin.

“I thought this book is clearly about football, certainly more clearly than Promised Land was,” says Clavane. “Then someone said to me this morning that it’s not actually about football at all. It is using its as a frame through which I tell the story of the Anglo-Jewish experience, of how an insecure immigrant minority over 100 years became a relatively secure, integrated minority.

“By telling the story of Jewish footballers I’ve told the social and cultural history of Britain – at least, that’s what I set out to do.”

The other thing that some may think is that Clavane has once again picked a fairly unlikely subject. The author himself recognises immediately in his book that “Jewish” and “footballer” are not two words that would be filed next to each other in the mental Rolodex.

“In Airplane there’s a joke about someone asking for something light to read and they are offered Famous Jewish Sporting Legends,” says Clavane.

“I’m doing a number of launch events for the book over the coming weeks and I’m going to tell the joke that my book about Jewish footballers should be the shortest book in the world. 
“The joke is that if you’re Jewish, you don’t play sport. Of course the real joke is that simply isn’t true.”

Of course, there is a risk that a book about Jewish footballers will only hold an interest for real fans of the game, or followers of the faith.

However, as Promised Land showed those who dismiss it simply as a sports book might well miss out.

Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? 
by Anthony Clavane will be launched 
at a special event at Waterstones, Leeds, October 9, at 7pm. 
Clavane will be in conversation with author Dave Simpson and there will be a performance by members of the Promised Land cast. Tickets on 0113 244 4588.